The Death of Stalin shows a hilarious sequence of powerful people doing stupid things to become more powerful. Kruschev, Beria, Malenkov, and Molotov, competing in the power vacuum of a post-Stalin USSR. The movie shows small, seemingly mundane decisions which you usually wouldn’t think about when considering the deaths and horrors of Soviet authoritarianism, adding a darkly funny twist to a heavy history.
The beginning of the film sets the mood–the four men, Stalin’s advisors, doing their best to impress him, make him laugh. They spend a night trying to see who can crack the best jokes about people condemned to death by Stalin’s blacklists, and watching a Western cowboy movie that the four pretend to enjoy for the thousandth time, only to fall asleep. This important yet superficial game plays like a group of elementary school kids trying to impress the kid who just got the new toy everyone wants to play with. Afterwards, Kruschev goes home to his wife and they sit taking notes in the middle of the night about the absurd jokes or topics that Stalin laughed at, sharpening Kruschev’s strategy for currying Stalin’s favor. The ridiculousness of the situation becomes evident when Stalin is on his deathbed, but none of the men decide to call a doctor, each displaying a front of extravagant emotion at the illness of their dear leader while hoping for his death. The themes of manipulation, power, and absurdity are present throughout the story, as the four men throw together feeble alliances with each other to leverage as much power as possible for themselves.
The portrayal of political processes not only shed light on the sequence of events after Stalin’s death, but also shows some of the absurdity of politics in general. It helped me see why politics are so exclusive and difficult to infiltrate–you need to learn the game to be successful in this sort of cutthroat environment. One character says about Malenkov, Stalin’s meek successor: “never trust a weak man,” a testament to the cruciality of a strong arm and thick skin in politics. While cold war Russia may not be a perfect representation of the United States today, there are striking similarities.
At the end of the movie, as Beria is being killed, the others are listing off his crimes, including numerous counts of rape and sexual abuse. Beria then shouts that they have all been guilty of murder and rape. This brought me back to the current me too movement, with allegations against many politicians and actors, including some of the actors on the screen. It was striking to see Jeffrey Tambor playing one of these powerful men, since he was recently accused of sexual harassment. This was an eerie erasure of the line between fiction and reality.
Ultimately, the Death of Stalin was entertaining and made me laugh out loud. It showed harsh realities in a comedic way. I would have preferred a more substantive plot, but recommend the movie to anyone interested in thinking critically about politics while having a good laugh.